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These are 5 garden elements you need to add to your garden (or at least pick a few). Homesteading for happiness is important. Often times we get caught up in the production side but each has its place.
Harold Thornbro became an Urban Homesteader on a 1/10th acre property in Indiana where he grows an extensive annual and perennial garden using permaculture practices. He is the host of the Modern Homesteading Podcast as well as the author of , From Home to Small Town Homestead.
He’s passionate about helping others start a homesteading lifestyle doing it right where they are no matter where they live. He’s a repeat guest on my podcast and when the subject of this episode was proposed I couldn’t have agreed more and knew it was definitely something to explore. There’s definitely truth in the belief that Harold has that homesteading is not just for productivity but for happiness as well, though the two can go hand in hand.
Listen in below to the full podcast, Episode #257 Homesteading for Happiness is Okay, of the Pioneering Today Podcast, where we don’t just inspire you, but give you the clear steps to create the homegrown garden, pantry, kitchen, and life you want for your family and homestead.
Melissa: Share with us how you made that connection of homesteading for happiness and the steps that you’re using to bring that into reality.
Harold: When I first started doing this, it was like most homesteaders, it’s all about growing as much healthy food as possible. Especially for someone likes me who has a pretty small property and wants to maximize that space as best as possible to grow as much as possible. That was my number one goal. As I went along, we got a bit of food coming from my garden, but what I found was I really started designing it in a way that not only did it provide me a lot of food, but it just made me happy to be in it. Just to be out there among the plants and walking it.
Not even just necessarily working in it or eating from it, but just being out there in it. I have paths and things, which we’ll touch on in a few minutes, just designing it in a way that just bring joy and makes me happy. I struggled with that a bit. I worried that it was something I shouldn’t focus on. Should I be working in a meandering path or putting a bench here, or a water feature, when I should just be growing as much food as I can, especially since I’m so limited on property. So I struggled with that a little bit. Is it something I should put out there and try to build something that just makes you happy, that is beautiful, that you like looking at. Because in the scheme of things, it isn’t the most important thing for sure.
But I had to reconcile whether it was important and something I want to focus on. Is it something I want to tell others they should probably focus on? I had an internal struggle on whether it was really something I should be looking at. Then I came to the conclusion that I thought this is important.
Melissa: I think it’s important too. I had the exact same struggles because I neglected areas that were just flower beds that didn’t have any food production, or any medicinal herbs that are still gorgeous flowers. But if they were just flowers I figured I didn’t have the time to spend on weeding or maintaining them. I didn’t want to add any more to it or anything. Then I reached the point where you had mentioned, where I thought, it’s ok to put some flowers in. Even if they’re not for companion planting, or herbs…they’re just for the sheer joy of having them. It’s okay to spend time on that. So I love that you said that cause it was like I had to give myself permission. So for those of you struggling, Harold and I give you permission. It’s okay to put in beautiful things, even if that’s their only purpose.
Harold: It’s even more than okay. I think it’s actually important. Not only should we do it because it makes us happy, but we should probably do it because it’s healthy. It’s why we were created. It’s part of us. Feeding our bodies is really important, but also feeding our soul is important as well. I think a beautiful garden does that.
Melissa: I completely agree. At the time of recording this interview, it was March, so very little growing out in the garden. It’s still pretty barren and everything’s muted. Shades of gray and brown at this point; very little green. In the spring, summer and even fall, I go out at least every morning and usually every evening and just walk through the gardens, not working or harvesting, just walking through them, spending time and decompressing. I didn’t realize how much I miss that and how much of a stress reducer that was.
Harold, I know you have a relevant verse to share with us.
Harold: You know how you’re reading your Bible and you’ve read a passage several times and then one day you just see something you’ve never seen before? While I was reading in Genesis 2 verses 8-10, everybody knows this story really. It’s the garden of Eden with God putting Adam in the garden. Verse 8 starts out and says,
In the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden. And there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground may the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads.
Now, there was a thing in there that I hadn’t really ever focused on before and that’s when God planted the garden for Adam, first he says he planted every tree that is pleasant to the sight, not good for food. That just hit me, because, again, I was struggling. I was struggling whether to be worried about the beauty of this garden or the production of it. This first tells me that I should be concerned with both. Both are important. One feeds our body and one feeds our soul. We should plant things that feed our soul as well, that are beautiful, that look good the eye. And when I came across that verse, it was the kind of thing that told me it was okay to focus on that.
I think it’s great that God says this is part of why I created you to enjoy the beauty of creation. You feel the poets write about it, authors write about it. We experience it all the time. We walk in nature and our gardens. How many times have you heard people say that it makes them happy to be in a garden? Or walk in the woods and hang out with nature? It’s the way we were created. When we bring that onto our properties, into our backyard and provide a lot of food for us, that’s a really good thing.
Melissa: I completely agree. So many times I hear people say gardening is my therapy. They do it just as much for the food as they do for the joy that it brings them. I think regardless of where your faith lies, there is that undeniable human part of us that responds to nature and gardening.
Harold: Absolutely. There have been a lot of studies out there that show this is true. I came across several studies and one that stuck out to me was from the American Society of Horticultural Science that focused on gardening and its effects on stress reduction and healthy aging. I thought that was really interesting because what they found was what we’ve all experienced…it does reduce your stress.
I know after a hard day of work I come home and just walk around in my garden…and I feel a lot better. It reduces stress. Studies have also found that it gives mental clarity, especially in older people. It helps them focus and get their mind right by spending time in a garden. I thought that was really interesting that it even helps with those kinds of things. There was also a study that showed that it also helps reduces blood pressure. There are some places that are actually using plants and nature sounds for pain therapy. For example, during certain procedures that they couldn’t use medication for the pain while they were doing the procedure. So they would use pictures of plants and sounds of nature just to ease the pain. I thought that was amazing!
There’s a lot of studies that study the overall effect of the mental health of people who spend a lot of time in gardens as well. There’s a lot of science to support all of it. I think it really shows the importance of building a beautiful garden. Now, every garden isn’t beautiful to every person. We all think our garden is beautiful. Build it to your style, what you like. Someone else thinks their garden is beautiful. If it makes them feel good and happy, that’s great. We’re not doing it for other people. We’re doing it for ourselves.
We’re not doing it for other people. We’re doing it for ourselves. – Harold Thornbro
Melissa: I read that dirt itself has microbes in it that actually help with depression and anxiety on a physical level when your skin touches the microbes in the dirt. There was another study I heard about on Bulletproof radio, where when out around evergreens, like pines, firs, and cedars, just inhaling the scent of those oils actually improves your brain function and long-term anti-aging, and cognition. I was just fascinated and decided I need to make sure I take a walk outside and crush a few of those pine needles in my hands every day.
There are so many aspects, just from these few studies that we’ve both shared, that support what we’ve intuitively known.
Harold: Right, it just feeds all of our senses. Like our sense of smell, our sight. It gives us peace and calms us. Touching…the dirt, the soil, the plants. All of it just feeds every part of us.
We’ve looked at why it’s important. But how do we do that? You find what looks good to you and then you start building something. When I was on last I believe I told you that we bought an addition to your property. We bought the property next door to us and I was going to expand my homestead into that property. It only had a barn on it and had this big open grassy lawn. So then it came down to determining how I was going to design it.
Harold: And this is where I really started feeling guilty and then came across those passages which helped ease my pain. I felt guilty though because I was thinking that I mostly wanted to make it look really, really good. But then I thought that I needed it to produce for me. It has to give me a lot of food. So where did I start? I started with paths. I’m cutting paths in there and infrastructure like fences.
Pick a style you like. I find a lot of inspiration from several different garden styles. I love English cottage gardens, I love Japanese gardens. They’re just amazing. I love Mediterranean garden. So many of those things just really hit the spot for me.
Permaculture is huge for me. So I love tying nature into my garden and making it look more natural. I also like to incorporate a lot of those other styles into that. Now I spend a lot of my time on YouTube, not watching homestead channels necessarily, but I like to watch garden tours. It helps you get an idea of what you really, really like and what you want to build on your homestead.
I like a meandering path. I do have some straight path with lots of edge (we’ll get into why that’s important). Paths are important because not only do they provide a way to your harvest and to maintain your garden, but they’re also a way for you to just enjoy your garden. To walk through the trails that you cut through your garden and it gives you an edge effect, which is a permaculture concept. You can plant all along that edge. We find in permaculture the edge is where a lot of life is. So putting in trails is more than just about looking good and enjoying it, but it actually has a great purpose for growing an abundance of food as well.
Melissa: I’m with you. I tend to like the meandering paths. When you’re putting in your garden pathways, what are your favorite ways to actually put the pathway in? How are you keeping weeds down? What are you building it with?
Harold: I have different kinds of paths. I’ve experimented with a few things. I have some gravel paths that when I put them down they were to be permanent. They’re not going anywhere and I’m not growing anything necessarily in the path. So I put down weed block fabric and then four inches of gravel on top of that to create the path. That particular one is my main path through my garden. But then off that, I put in a little backyard pond and I have a bridge that goes over that. On the other side is a mulch pathway. I didn’t put any barriers down underneath that. I just put cardboard underneath it and then put down some thick mulch. What I did to keep the grass from walking into the pathway was to plant comfrey. All along the path on the edge is comfrey which has a really thick root mass and the big leaves that will prevent the grass from crawling into your pathway.
I have some paths that are stone, like a flat slate rock. I have some that we took broken cement and actually embedded it into the ground. I have moss or grass growing up through that. So you might take a weed eater or something and keep that down if you have grass. It’s spotted in my path to where it’s more like stepping stones and works really well. And that’s something I got for free.
We just have all kinds of paths here and it all works differently. I haven’t fully decided on the ones I like the best because they’re all in their own area and they all look different and give me that different feel. The gravel kind gives me more of the Japanese garden feel or a little bit of a cottage garden feel. The mulch has more of permaculture feel to it. But it all ties in really well to bring a lot of beauty into your property.
Melissa: I like the broken up concrete. I have some different gravel paths too and over time the grass will start to creep in on the sides. Not horribly but I have to weed that out so I love the idea of the comfrey. Now, comfrey can be a little bit invasive so I understand that it works great on the edge, but what about the other side into the garden bed? Do you find that over time that you’re having to divide that or to remove the comfrey so it doesn’t encroach?
Harold: There’s a couple different kinds of comfrey. There is the common comfrey, which spreads by seed and that’s invasive. It will spread. Blocking 14 Russian Comfrey has sterile seeds and the only way it will expand and spread is by breaking up the root. If you take a shovel and chop it up, it will expand. When that root breaks it just starts a whole new plant so you want to be careful. If you plan on doing any digging in an area, you don’t want to plant comfrey there. But as long as you plant the cutting or a crown, they’ll stay right there and it’ll never spread. It’ll get pretty big but that’s as far as it’ll go. You do want to be careful about what kind of comfrey you use. Don’t use common comfrey for that. You definitely want to use the sterile Russian variety.
Melissa: So plant in a permanent spot that we don’t really want to be touching afterwards?
Harold: Right. You’re not going to get rid of it because that root goes down several feet. So it’ll always be there wherever you put it.
Melissa: You mentioned a bridge that went over a little water feature. Did you put that in yourself?
Harold: Yes. I love water features for just adding beauty to the backyard. They have a lot of other functions as well. I put in a little backyard pond. We have a little waterfall and creek, maybe 10 feet, that runs over to and dumps into the pond. I just build a bridge over that creek. The trail takes off from there off of our deck. It’s a neat little feature.
Melissa: Is the creek man-made or natural?
Harold: It’s man-made. I dug the trenches and ran the water lines. It basically just circulates from the pond back to the other end to the waterfall. The waterfall I made with rocks. It’s not huge, about a couple hundred gallons that runs through it all.
Melissa: Are you growing any water plants in the pond?
Harold: Yes, there are a few things growing in there. I tried water chestnut for one year. It did alright for a little while and then died off. I think it’s a little too shaded right there. I grow regular water plants, nothing edible. Just things nice to look at: water lilies, water lettuce…there are some fish in there. And a turtle. My grand kids really enjoy hanging out on the bridge and looking at it.
Melissa: I know a lot of people struggle with growing in shady areas. Do you have any suggestions?
Harold: My number one favorite thing to plant in shady spots is hostas. I love hostas. There are so many different varieties of them too. There are some really dark ones, big leaves, little leaves. They don’t need a lot of sunlight and do great. To me that’s my favorite ornamental, even though it’s edible.
Something else I’ve grown on the shady side of my house is mushrooms. I put in an entire mushroom bed in some mulch. It isn’t a real strong visual but I’m all about making use of that space if you can.
Melissa: Sometimes you have to get a bit closer but I find mushrooms fascinating. What kind are you growing?
Harold: Right now we have a couple of different kinds. I’m drawing a blank on the exact name of them. I also have shiitake on logs over there as well.
Melissa: I love that hostas flower later in the season. I have some in my front flowerbed because it’s pretty deep shade there.
Harold: I like growing hostas around trees even because they help keep weeds down. Basically a living mulch right around the tree. I use comfrey a lot in those places too. Comfrey is definitely my favorite. The mulberry trees in my backyard are another favorite. Not only do I enjoy the fruit but I use the leaves a feed for my rabbits. They can be an aggressive tree and in some states, like Indiana, the white mulberry is considered an invasive species.
Melissa: That’s what we do with blackberries here.
Harold: We love looking at our mulberry trees. I also love the apple trees, especially in the early spring when they start flowering…they’re just beautiful. We have a cherry tree that I love the bark on it. It looks so different than all the other trees. We try to provide a lot of colors, things that flower, but even in our regular vegetables I try to just plant things that have a lot of reds , oranges, and yellows.
Melissa: I’ve been growing a lot more orange nasturtiums for companion planting and pest control with the brassicas. It’s been the past four or five years that I’ve really incorporated flowers in the vegetable garden. Like directly not just as borders. I ask myself why I didn’t do it sooner.
Harold: I’ve heard they help with the squash bugs and beetles but you say you’re planting them with your brassicas?
Melissa: Yes, I don’t have the squash vine borer so I’m sorry to say I don’t have any experience with that, but I do deal with the cabbage moths here. So I plant the orange nasturtiums between my brassicas. For example in a row, I’ll plant two brussels sprouts, one nasturtium, two brussels sprouts, one nasturtium, and so on. I do feel it very much so helps cut back on the number of worms and white moths on my brassicas.
Harold: I keep nasturtiums by our squash and stuff because they’ve always said it helps deter squash bugs and stuff. Lavender is supposed to be really good to deter the cabbage moths. I have some lavender growing among the cabbage and that seems to help a little bit. Those have a beautiful flower too.
Melissa: I crop rotate my brassicas, I don’t ever plant them in the spot. So do you have your lavender just in pots and move them around as you crop rotate? Or how are you doing that?
Harold: Yeah, I have some in pots. I’ve also planted some along the paths which is generally where I plant the cabbage.
Melissa: I’ll have to try that because I love lavender too. I might have to grab some cutting and put them in pots. Cause why not have more flowers?
Harold: I’m a dual purpose kind of guy. I’m a permaculture guy so I want to plant stuff that’s beautiful and going to benefit my garden as well. Some examples:
Melissa: Calendula is another one of my favorites. It’s a beautiful flower and hardy too and can handle a little frost. I do use it for companion planting as well. But I really use it becuase I love to use the blossoms in my herbal salves and ointments and soaps. And tea. So it provides beauty but also has so many other uses as well.
Harold: And if nothing else they’re good for pollinators. I’m not a big sunflower seed guy but I love growing sunflowers. They love pollinators.
Melissa: You had mentioned benches and seating earlier so I want to circle back to that. How did you decide where you were going to put it? Any tips for people who want to put some of those elements in? I assume you’re putting in seating in an area where it give you a good view of all the different features. Are you putting plants around the seating?
Harold: Absolutely, when we first walk through the gate from our front yard into the back, I have a bench right there and generally I’ll put beans or something that vine up around the backside of it and along the sides. On the turn of a curve is another good spot. I would just pop a bench wherever you can. We love the cast iron benches and wooden benches. Put a chair here or there.
When putting in seating I also consider aromas. Have some herbs around the seating. If you’re going to be sitting there reading a book consider shade for your seating. Make sure the smells are enjoyable. It does a lot to reduce your stress, lower your blood pressure, and just makes sitting there more pleasant. Create a spot where you want to hang out. I personally want to have something tall behind me. I like to have some privacy behind me.
Melissa: And it feels cozy. There’s something when you have stuff wrapped around you whether that’s plants or whatnot, it gives you that cozy feeling that you want to stay awhile.
Harold: You might want to have different places to put for your seating, depending on what you’re looking for and your weather. You might want a sunny spot to enjoy some sunlight. If it’s really hot out you want a nice shady spot.
American Society for Horticultural Science – Growing Minds: Evaluating the Effect of Gardening on Quality of Life and Physical Activity Level of Older Adults
National Center for Biotechnology Information:
Science Advances – Nature and Mental Health: An Ecosystem Service Perspective
Melissa K. Norris inspires people's faith and pioneer roots with her books, podcast, and blog. Melissa lives with her husband and two children in their own little house in the big woods in the foothills of the North Cascade Mountains. When she's not wrangling chickens and cattle, you can find her stuffing Mason jars with homegrown food and playing with flour and sugar in the kitchen.